Thursday, October 31, 2013

Be-Bop Had the Right Idea

When Charlie Parker was asked to 'sing' a tune, he often didn't. Whether he was trying to sing the melody or not, what he usually did was sing mainly the phrasing, emphasizing the rhythm.

Bebop is a very rhythm-oriented music. In fact, the very name comes from a prominent lick: two eighths followed by a rest … be-BOP.

Now, if we transport our thinking some 7000 miles to the east, we arrive at India, where rhythm is king and written music is a rarity. Their Carnatic music tradition is based on spoken rhythmic patterns passed down from teacher to pupil, from one generation to the next. To master the rhythms, the student must memorize them. It's not sufficient to merely play the rhythms. Knowing -- memorizing -- the verbal patterns is required.

In western music we don't pay much attention to vocalizing rhythms or to memorizing. Maybe we should. Charlie Parker thought in terms of rhythm to the point that he quite readily verbalized a tune's rhythm, often only alluding to its melody. It's a good habit to get into. If we can speak the rhythm of a tune, then we will truly know the rhythmic spirit of the tune.

As drummers, rhythm is pretty much all we have to work with. We're rhythmic animals, so we should be putting all our effort into mastering and interpreting the rhythmic backbone of the tunes we play.

A technique I sometimes use is to transcribe a tune, copying down only the rhythm. Then I have the rhythmic flow in front of me (without all those up and down notes) and I can concentrate on the lines and phrasing. This is especially useful for tunes that use tricky rhythm structures. (It wasn't until I did a rhythmic transcription that I had any idea how to handle Sonny Rollins's “Oleo”) It also helps when the tune’s overall structure is unusual, such as a 44-bar AABA.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When Teachers Don't Teach

When I was a teenager, there was another fellow in our town who'd started playing drums around the same time I did. He worked hard, took a lot of lessons, and quite often his progress was compared to my own.

Some years later, this same guy came to me for lessons. Now, he had actually been playing longer than I had and he'd even had more training, so his coming to me was both ironic and confusing. What I soon found out was that, while he could do wonders on a snare drum and could transmogrify anything in a drum book into sound, he could not play drums confidently in a musical context.

I've seen this phenomenon a number of times, and I'm always perturbed by it. Now, rather than berate the teachers for a job not well done, I'd like to lay the blame where it belongs: The System.

Drums have a long tradition, and drum instruction no doubt has just as long a history. Trouble is, once a tradition is set down, it often doesn’t get updated. There are different reasons for this lack. Sometimes the devotees believe the material couldn’t possibly need any updating. Sometimes the adherents don't see an alternative. Some purists insist that if their teacher used it, then it's the one true way. And sometimes the topic just never gets raised.

In truth, things change. And technology changes. Now, the term technology merely refers to the way things are done (e.g. the "Moeller method" and double bass pedals are technology). And as technology changes, so does our knowledge. Even more significant is that our beliefs change as well. For a long time it was believed that no human could run a mile in just four minutes. And then someone did it. Before long, everyone was breaking the 4-minute mile barrier because people no longer believed it was not possible.

Some of the mind-boggling speeds we see from contemporary drummers is another example. Once one person clocks 1000 strokes a minute, then everyone confidently shoots for the same target. And some just whiz right past it.

Now, back to the traditions of drum instruction. Teaching drums from a basic exercise book has some benefits. Learning the basics of music is always good. Learning to read is also good, as is plenty of snare drum practice with various stickings. But none of these will get you closer to playing drums. So a modern method ought to focus on the entire drum set and also the entire student.

The first thing I show my students is a rudimentary polka. It's really just a warm up exercise using all four limbs, but in a pinch, it could get them through a polka without too much trouble. Of course I assign reading and sticking patterns too, but they are always within a musical context, not relegated to some sterile exercise on a page and divorced from any true musical goal.

And so it was with a bit of my philosophy under his belt that this student took a dance band gig. After his first night, he reported back to me by exclaiming, "Hey, this stuff's useful!"

And so it should be.

Now, if you find 15-stroke rolls and triple ratamaques useful, by all means go with it. What I'd rather show my students is how to use G. L. Stone's “Stick Control” to discover jazz and funk rhythms.